One may be forgiven when confusing the different tribes of the Paiute. They are closely related, and though they do come from different tribes, their geographic regions do overlap. Traditionally, the Paiute Native Americans come from three separate tribes. The Northern Paiute populated California, Idaho, Nevada and portions of Oregon, the Owens Valley Paiute from California and Nevada, and the Southern Paiute of Arizona, southeastern California, Nevada, and Utah. Since there is distinct overlap between the different tribes, geographically, there are also significant shared cultural aspects, such as language. That does not make the tribes the same though, as each tribe has their own heritage and history.
The Northern Paiute are the most well documented of the three tribes, and have had the most original contact with settlers. They were a desert-inhabiting tribe that centered a specific water-giving territory. Each band would find their own area, and settle down in a place that had an ample supply of the fish or waterfowl that made up the primary source of their diet. Located in the Great Basin of eastern California, western Nevada, and southeast Oregon, individual bands would also have their local animal population as food source and trade material for the other Northern Paiute tribes in the area. Since there was constant intermarriage and migration of families, individual tribes more were named for their food source and their trade offerings then any specific racial divide.
The Northern Paiute maintained generally friendly relations with the other tribal people around them. They were very closely linked with the western Shoshone, though they did not interact as peacefully with the Washoe tribal people. Unfortunately, their relations with the incoming European settlers was destined for conflict, and led to several significant conflicts over several decades, from the 1860s through the 1870s. Eventually the wars provoked military interventions, and the federal government attempted to establish reservations for the Northern Paiute in Oregon.
The Paiute people proved extremely resistant to the established reservation, since the climate and lifestyle was such a departure from their more traditional way of life. Most refused, and those that went eventually left the reservation and returned to their traditional grounds, where they attempted retain their lifestyle. When that failed they sought work with settling ranchers and farmers, while forming ‘Indian Colonies’ with the Shoshone and Washoe around the Reno area. They maintained these colonies until the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, when they gained recognition as an independent tribe.
In contrast to the Northern Paiute, the Owens Valley Paiute tribes are the least documented of the three Paiute tribal groups. Until very recently, they were generally considered an extension of the Northern Paiute Tribes. They maintained a similar lifestyle as the Northern Paiute, though their tribes were centered around the Owens River on the southern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Owens Valley Paiute did consider themselves their own tribal identity, and called the full name of their tribe the Nün‘wa Paya Hup Ca’a‘ Otuu’mu – ‘Coyotes children living in the water ditch’.
Like the Northern Paiute, the Owens Valley Paiute had good relations with their neighbors, the Shoshone, but poor relations with the new European settlers. The Owens Valley Paiute even spoke the same language as the Shoshone tribe. The eventual conflict between the Paiute and settlers culminated with a war over the Owens Valley that lasted from 1861 to 1865. The eventual relocation of the tribes from this region grouped the Owens Valley Paiute with the Northern Paiute, they shared space and ended up in many of the same reservations and colonies near Bridgeport and Independence in California. The Indian Reorganization Act also recognized the Owens Valley Paiute tribes, and by the 1990s there are over 2,500 members of these tribes recognized on various reservations.
The Southern Paiute were the second Paiute tribe recognized from that region. The tribe traditionally lived in the Colorado River Basin and the Mojave Desert. Several branches of the tribe mixed with the Paiute tribes in the Owens Valley as well. Despite the close living with the Owens Valley Paiute, the southern branches of this tribe had a distinctly different language that was more similar to the Northern Paiute Tribe then anything from the Owens Valley Tribal language.
They often mixed with other tribes as well, such as the Navajo, and the coastal tribe of the Chumash of the Central Coast, this meant that despite their location in more barren regions, they had better contact with the tribes surrounding them. This led to more conflict as well, and the Southern Paiute often were the victims of slave raiding from other tribes. Unlike the other two main Paiute branches, the Southern Paiute integrated mostly peacefully with European settlers, due to settlement by the Mormon missionaries in the 1850s. The tribe worked closely with the Mormon settlers that occupied their water sources, and created a co-dependent relationship. When more European settlers and farmers occupied the area the Southern Paiute gradually lost their tribal identities as the new settlers’ styles worked against their traditional ways of life. The Southern Paiute went to reservation life relatively peacefully, which backfired when their tribal identity was terminated in 1954, only to be restored in 1980.
When looking at tribal identity, most people draw the conclusion that all the tribes from the same general area must have been from the same tribe. Since our sense of scale has become so much larger due to ease of travel, this means that many tribes get clumped together because they occupied the same space, or what we would consider the area of the same state. Tribal life was much more segregated, small microclimates and areas close by could foster different tribal cultures and identities. The different tribes of the Paiute are a good example of this phenomenon, what was once considered a single people has reasserted their tribal identities, and said, “No…we are different, and you must recognize us for that difference.”